CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Punching Above Your Weight in International Affairs

By Ludovico Feoli

At a recent event in San José co-hosted by CIAPA, the newly elected president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís, presented his vision of a foreign policy for his administration. One may question the relevance of the subject for such a tiny player in the global sphere, with only 52,000 square kilometers, four million inhabitants, and no army. But the fact of the matter is that the country has historically played an outsized role in international affairs, punching well above its weight.

Standing up to the Reagan administration in the late 80s it helped broker the peace process that ended the Central American wars. It later spearheaded an initiative at the United Nations to regulate the international trade of small arms that culminated in the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the General Assembly in 2013. The country has twice occupied a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. It is recognized for its leadership in international environmental policy, being among the first to negotiate debt for nature swaps and establish a large-scale program of payments for ecological services. It is also recognized for its respect for, and leadership in, the field of human rights, and serves as the host for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This active international profile has been informed by close adherence to a set of core values: disarmament, denuclearization, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and respect for human rights and the environment. By enhancing the country’s “soft power” such a stance has enabled it to act as a “moral power” on the world stage. Yet the country’s bearing has also been pragmatic, embracing early adherence to GATT and global integration, for example, and being the first country in Central America to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Because Costa Rica’s “realist idealism” has been path breaking in these ways the new president’s foreign policy vision may therefore be of more than just local interest.

In fact, President Solís is not complacent about the country’s recent international profile. He made the case for a better articulation of its foreign policy. Latin America, in his view, has not to date been treated as the strategic space it is. Costa Rica has focused, historically, on its relations with Central America, the United States and Europe. Only a few Latin American countries have commanded attention, and then but insufficiently and inconsistently. Solís proposed Costa Rica should be an “impactful actor”, constructing a regional dialogue about security, climate change, human rights, migration, socio-economic equity, and trade and investment. These last two areas–trade and investment–have commanded too much attention from recent governments, in his view, and, while important, he believes they should be driven by the broader political considerations of foreign policy, and not the other way around.

While recognizing the importance of a Latin American focus, the President understands the region to be diverse and believes that policy should be tailored accordingly. He distinguishes four sub-regions with different relevance for national interests. First is Central America, the country’s natural geographic and historic reference point. But he proposes that this region should extend to the Caribbean Basin, his second sub region, incorporating not only its insular territories, but also those of important countries on the coastal areas, like Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. Third is North America, understood not merely as the United States, but also Mexico and Canada–all countries with which Costa Rica already maintains meaningful and fruitful relations. The fourth sub region is South America, which he sub-divides into the Southern Cone and the Andean Region. Relations with these countries have been the least active but hold great potential, particularly in the case of Brazil.

Where does this leave the United States? The President acknowledged the long history of positive, albeit sometimes tense, relations with the U.S., which is currently also the country’s leading trade and investment partner. He expects this to continue, but not at the expense of the country’s autonomy. In line with his vision of a realist idealism, he wishes to stir clear from positions that, for the sake of alignment, would limit the country’s freedom of action. This would be true in general, not merely for the U.S. For example, he distanced himself from U.S. regional security policies, which he considered to be “militarized”, but he also announced that Costa Rica would not be joining Venezuela’s Petrocaribe.

Indeed, Solís vowed to follow a “pluralistic” approach to regional relations, one that recognizes the inherent value of the different integration institutions in the region, and defends their relevance. The CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which excludes the U.S. and Canada) will have pride of place, given that Costa Rica’s pro-tempore presidency provides a unique opportunity to exert the kind of leadership the President advocates. However, he does not believe that the Organization of American States should be written off. As the historical repository of inter-American integration and international law it must, in fact, be defended. But insofar as its political functions have been displaced to other fora this should be recognized as part of the new regional reality. As should be the fact that the U.S. can no longer strong-arm regional actors or inhibit the presence of extra hemispheric ones.

The SICA (Central American Integration System) will also be a focus of attention for the President, given its relevance to Costa Rica. The country has tended to retract from a full engagement with its Central American peers and the President believes it is time to change this, making the country a pacesetter for the sub-region. He pledged to pursue SICA’s next Secretary General post for a Costa Rican, from which vantage point he would seek to reform and update the institution.

The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Out America (ALBA) will also merit attention and consideration, although they will not be central. Solís seemed less enthusiastic about the Pacific Alliance (PA), an integration effort spearheaded by Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile, and eagerly embraced by his predecessor. Primarily a trade block, the PA exemplifies Solís’ concern about trade driving foreign policy priorities. While not dismissing the relevance of trade or the potential of the PA, he suggested it should be pondered carefully, respecting the concerns of Costa Rican productive sectors. This in turn reflects the President’s ideological convictions that the state should play a more important role in guiding the economy, a central theme throughout the campaign in the run-up to his election.

In sum, the President’s foreign policy will be, in his own words, a form of “conservative inter-Americanism” and “progressive neostatism”. It will be principled, in that it will continue to be inspired by the ideals of disarmament and denuclearization, human rights, environmental stewardship, and equity. It will be pragmatic, focusing on those geographical regions and partners that have greatest potential for the country and actively promoting its interests and defending its rights. It will be pluralistic, engaged with international institutions to the extent that they fit the country’s needs. And it will be integral, not surrendering policy to particular objectives, like trade and investment, or conceding the directive prerogatives of the state to the forces of the market.

Whether this will enable Costa Rica to continue punching above its weight in international affairs remains to be seen. But the President has articulated a comprehensive vision for a foreign policy which he clearly believes will do so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research

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